The invisible editor

Like clockwork, yet again I’ve been bitterly disappointed by a bestselling hist-fic published in the U.S. within the last ten years. So many times I’m left wondering if I read the same book everyone else raved about!

This book was written about in the local newspaper I used to work for, either because the author has some kind of connection to that area, or she were doing an author event locally. From the description, it sounded just like the type of book I love, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.

Wrong!

Let me count the ways in which this bloated book fails:

1. So many things were overdescribed, in such overwrought prose! It was like reading an Anna Godbersen book, only without the halfway decent storylines and characters. Nobody freaking cares about the minute details of everyone’s clothes, architecture, pastries, staircases, watches, or opera sets!

2. Million-dollar thesaurus words. I wish I’d kept a list, because she uses so many of them! I know not everyone has the same vocab, but I can’t think of anyone whose everyday language (in either speech or writing) includes words like “mullioned” and “panchromium”!

3. Showing off her research. I personally like when street names are included, since it helps to more fully evoke the setting and create a sense of the city as a character. But I don’t need to know the name of every freaking street or landmark during a walk or drive in Paris!

5. Showing off her language knowledge. I’m all for using foreign language for flavor, but not obnoxiously using it out of context and to show off! So many times, she uses French or Hungarian for no apparent reason. She doesn’t even have a glossary, which I always build for my books with non-Anglophone characters. And what’s with using the Hungarian word gimnázium? “Gymnasium” is the standard English word for continental European secondary schools!

6. Falsely marketed as a sweeping saga about three brothers in France, Italy, and Hungary in the years leading up and during WWII. It quickly becomes obvious this is only about one of the brothers and his insipid love story with an older woman. There should’ve been no shame in marketing this as a very long historical romance!

7. Third-person limited was a mistake in a book with so many characters. I would’ve loved to follow a lot of these other people more than the Mary Sue protagonist!

8. Ms. Orringer doesn’t know how to write a convincing male protagonist! While I’d like to think I’m pretty good at writing characters of the opposite sex, I know I’ll never be 100% accurate. I only have firsthand knowledge of being female, as tomboyish as I’ve always been. Andras reads like a woman’s idealized perfect man.

9. How many 22-year-old university freshmen not only fall passionately in love with women nine years older, but are dying to marry them and have babies with them? Let alone if that woman has a teenage daughter, and this is the guy’s first-ever relationship!

10. As someone who deliberately writes at saga length myself, I’ve developed a strong sense of when length is justified by the story vs. when it’s an overwritten hot mess. The latter is true in this book.

11. One-dimensional characters. Enough said.

12. Historical anachronisms and inaccuracies galore. E.g., blaming the wrong country for the entire cast having to leave Paris and return to Hungary over visa issues; everyone’s amazingly accepting attitude towards Polaner’s gayness; mistitling Bertolt Brecht’s famous play Mother Courage and Her Children as “The Mother.”

13. Overwrought prose, constantly telling the reader what to think and how to react.

14. At least 95% is telling and summarizing! “This happened. Then that happened. Over the summer, Name did this. Then Name did that. Tell tell telling telly telling lots of telling! During the winter, these things happened. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue. Flashback with even more telling. Did I mention, I can’t write an active scene to save my life?”

I’m shocked multiple editors and advance readers were credited. This book shows absolutely zero evidence of any editing. Ms. Orringer won lots of awards for a short story collection, and got many fellowships to research and write a novel. Clearly, no one had the guts to tell her the painful truth.

Newbie novelists deserve honesty and guidance, not mindless praise and carte blanche based on previous triumphs.

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An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Top Ten Tuesday—All About Romance Tropes/Types

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s topic is All About Romance Tropes/Types. I decided to split the list, with half the items being tropes and types I hate, and the other half being the antidote I love to see in their places.

Hate:

1. Instalove. Enough said!

2. Awesome, perfect, amazing first-time sex, whether it’s the first time for both parties or only one of them. Of course it can happen, but not nearly as often as the romance industry wants to lead us to believe.

3. The man ALWAYS being older in an M/F romance, esp. when the female lead is barely legal. Can we please have some more realistic, appropriate age differences, or at least a thoughtful exploration of the dynamic an age difference can create?

4. Rape and domestic violence (NOT to be confused with consensual BDSM!) being presented as romantic, swoon-worthy, excusable. When a female character in a romance has had a tragic past including rape or domestic abuse, it should have an original angle, and not dominate her entire life or storyline. I’m far from the only person who hates the “rape as character development” trope seen in so many movies, TV shows, and books!

5. The headless, hairless bare chest on the cover. It’s even worse if this kind of cover also includes a crotch shot.

Love:

1. A couple who’s been friends for a long time before becoming lovers, childhood sweethearts, or a couple who’s already together when the book begins. This kind of road to happily ever after, or happily for now, is so much more interesting and realistic than instalove.

2. Realistic, awkward, fumbled first-time sex. I can see an awesome first-time scene if one of the parties is already rather experienced, and the virginal partner is very emotionally ready and open to being a student, but even in that kind of instance, it’s still the couple’s first time together. What worked with previous partners might not work with the new lover, and there’s a whole new dynamic if this is the experienced lover’s first time with someone s/he loves instead of a purely physical act.

3. Couples where the woman is older. As a proud puma (woman in her thirties who likes younger men), formerly a bobcat (woman in her twenties who fancies younger guys), three years away from officially being labelled a cougar, I really love seeing these kinds of match-ups. Sometimes an older woman is just what a younger, inexperienced guy needs to get his head screwed on straight and gain valuable life experience.

4. Healthy, mutually respectful relationships, including sexual negotiation and moving at a speed comfortable to both parties. It’s really sweet when someone asks permission for a first kiss, and it makes for a better sexual relationship when the couple discusses and agrees upon things in advance, while their clothes are on. If someone, e.g., has a certain fetish or doesn’t like certain things, the heat of the moment isn’t the best time to first bring it up!

5. A cover featuring the couple but with interesting details to set it apart from other romance covers. For example, a richly embellished purple ballgown, a guy with an attention-grabbing shirt, a foreboding background.

Why accuracy matters so much in Shoah literature

It’s very unfortunate when fake Shoah memoirs and novels with beyond-implausible storylines and events are published, since it gives fuel to the deniers’ fodder. These are some of the books I’m thinking of:

Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne
Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca
Angel at the Fence, by Herman Rosenblat
For Those I Loved (Au Nom de Tous les Miens), by Martin Grey (né Mieczysław Grajewski)
Hannah: From Dachau to the Olympics and Beyond, by Rosemarie Pence
Memorias del Infierno, by Enric Marco
Stoker, by Donald Watt
The Man who Broke into Auschwitz, by Denis Avey
The Fifth Diamond, by Irene Zisblatt

I’d also include the film La Vita È Bella as a beyond-implausible tale of the Shoah, since it might as well have been titled Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp.

Irene Zisblatt’s story was critiqued piece by piece by Joachim Neander, Ph.D., at a scholarly anti-denial blog. I watched part of her testimony at the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, and couldn’t make it all the way through her easily-debunked stories. She packs in so many tropes and clichés, as much horror as possible, and has the most WTF story about an escape from a gas chamber, culminating in a Sonderkommando throwing her over an electrified fence, right into an open railcar, unnoticed by the SS and unreacted to by the other women in the train.

Memory isn’t infallible. The way we remember something, and how much, depends on many factors. Even people within the same family or group of friends may have slightly different accounts of the same events. These factors may include:

Personality (e.g., super-shy, very outgoing, go-getting)
Birth order (e.g., an overprotected youngest sibling, the independent oldest sibling, an unassuming sibling somewhere in the middle)
Age at the time
How long ago it happened
How long it took to begin talking or writing about it
State of mind at the time (e.g., depressed, in a state of denial for the purposes of self-preservation, shell-shocked)
Circumstances (e.g., an adult with several friends or siblings, a 13-year-old all alone)
Setting (e.g., hidden in a cellar, a death camp, hiding in the woods, a cushy detail in a factory)
How long one was in the situation

People may even misremember something much less consequential, like what a particular notebook, article of clothing, or rug looks like. It can be confused with something else owning to not seeing it in a long time, or only the general description remains. Sometimes we also confuse our own memories with something we read or heard somewhere else, and we don’t even realize it.

However, there’s a huge difference between putting events in the wrong order, not remembering every single thing, getting your dating slightly off, or misremembering a name, and outright making things up.

Mrs. Zisblatt’s story reminds me so much of the kind of Shoah stories I myself wrote in my early and mid-teens, or would’ve believed without any vetting. Don’t even ask what the rough draft of my Treblinka escape scene was like! It’s waiting on its fourth and hopefully final version, the most accurate and bone-chilling I can make it. The last thing I want to be accused of is being historically ignorant or flippant. If it hadn’t been even remotely plausible, I would’ve ditched it and created a whole new storyline to fill the timeline of July 1942–September 1943 for Lazarus, Malchen, and the Roblenskies.

Many works of fiction have elements which aren’t entirely common or realistic, to make characters and storylines feel more relevant to a modern audience, or to increase drama and tension. But that doesn’t mean we have free license to write whatever we want. The audience needs a compelling reason to go along with it, it must be within the realm of plausibility, and it should also be stressed that this wasn’t an everyday occurrence.

Many Shoah survivors, scholars, and laypeople have unintentionally passed along misinformation. Again, this doesn’t make them liars, but rather operating under faulty memory. Just take the urban legends of the human skin lampshades and soap made from victims, or the story about gas chamber victims being given soap and towels. They’re now proven false, but many people initially believed it, and thus passed along these stories to many other people. When someone in a position of authority conveys information, we tend to believe it and not check for corroborating sources.

I myself am 100% guilty of believing certain things I read in now-outdated books or heard from unreliable witnesses in documentaries, and of being that kid who read too much and understood too little. But I’m always glad to correct my mistakes and learn new information. For example, it was only very recently I discovered many of the prisoners in Lager C of Auschwitz never received tattoos. This was a transit camp for Hungarians, and very little official work was done there. Regular selections were performed here, and people who were taken to other camps and factories had no reason to get tattooed. Only people who were admitted to work details in the main camp had any reason to be tattooed.

False or wildly exaggerated memoirs, and equally-implausible novels, only play into the hands of Shoah deniers, and may possibly even influence an uninformed person to become a denier oneself. There’s nothing wrong with being honest and saying your book is a novel, not a memoir, or sticking with established history to craft your story.

Top Ten Tuesday—Ten Books I Will Probably Never Read

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s topic is Ten Books I Will Probably Never Read.

1. Fifty Shades of Grey. Nope, not interested in the romanticised portrayal of a clearly, disturbingly abusive relationship and a completely inaccurate depiction of true BDSM. I also hate how Ms. James just had to use my all-time favouritest female name, Anastasia, on the protagonist. If I’m ever blessed with a daughter, I’m going to name her Anastasiya, and of course use the proper Russian pronunciation, Ah-nah-STAH-see-yah.

2. TwilightYeah, that is never gonna happen. I’m so embarrassed my own parents ate this nonsense up, and don’t see it as anti-woman, creepy, poorly-written, any of the things it’s so often called out as.

3. Das Kapital. I did try to read this twice at 15, but only got as far as page 80 the second time. I really can’t ever see myself trying again as an adult. I’m told even a lot of serious Marxists only have this volume of sheer boredom on their shelves to point to as evidence of their convictions. No one wants to read this!

4. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith. The opposite side of the coin is never gonna happen either. I don’t care what kind of economic philosophy it espouses; I’m not interested in reading any long, boring economic treatise!

5. The Harry Potter franchise. I never understood all the hype, and in fact have always been turned off by all the hype and squeeing. People act like you’re a kitten-killer if you admit you’ve never read these books and have zero interest. I’d sooner crack and finally attempt LOTR or try a third time to finish The Hobbit! At least those books have proven themselves with staying power past a single generation.

6. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne. Way to make a complete mockery out of the Shoah. I was sick to my stomach enough the two times I watched Life Is Beautiful, which should’ve been titled Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp. If you’re going to depict something unusual, like a young child in a camp, at least make it within the realm of plausibility instead of so ridiculously beyond any sort of believable scenario that could’ve come together under specific circumstances.

7. Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski. Yet another offensive, ridiculous depiction of what happened during the Shoah. At least Mr. Boyne’s book, as offensive and ridiculous as it is, is meant as fiction. Mr. Wilkomirski pretended his book was a memoir, and then was famously exposed as a liar and fraud.

8. Anything by Geoffrey Giuliano. Even Albert Goldman’s sleazy “biographies” aren’t as disgusting and full of lies as Mr. Giuliano’s, which is saying quite a lot.

9. Anything else by Albert Goldman. After finding out The Lives of John Lennon, which I absolutely loved at 14, was full of lies and slander, with precious few facts, I was so disgusted and disillusioned. It’s no surprise to discover Mr. Goldman’s other “biographies” are just as excoriated.

10. The Hunger Games franchise. Again, yet another massively overhyped book I just don’t see the big deal over. It also was apparently responsible for a certain trend I really, really dislike, a writing style which now something like 90% of all YA writers are absolutely convinced they NEED to use. I’m also very annoyed at how people now associate the term dystopia with post-apocalyptic, instead of a utopia gone creepily wrong. And for that matter, I also can’t see myself ever reading the Divergent franchise either.